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Young labor leaders go south, build solidarity with OR YELL


PORTLAND, Ore. — Seven Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders members recently made the trek to the land of hipsters and food trucks for our Oregonian brothers’ and sisters’ annual Oregon Young Emerging Labor Leaders conference. Unconventionally held at Holocene, a show venue, the daylong event featured open discussions of the state of the young worker movement, Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men, and a social hour.

After hearing from former OR YELL Chairperson Nick Gaitaud and Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain, participants of the intimate group each shared an issue currently faced in their own union. We heard about struggles with reclassification, workplace and intra-union bullying, and outsourcing, but the arising theme was apathy of membership — an apropos topic considering the success and innovation of the national young worker movement in engaging workers in new ways.

We were able to workshop creative ways to stage direct actions according to our own needs with Mike Bonnano of the Yes Men. The Yes Men have pulled off attention-grabbing stunts, decrying the role of BP in the Bhopal disaster in India, highlighting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s anti-climate change legislation lobbying, and creating a hoax New York Times, with numerous “dream headlines” — WAR IN IRAQ ENDS! MAXIMUM WAGE LAW PASSED! and so on.

From left, Shaunie Saelee, Kamaria Hightower, Justine Winnie, Elaine Carlson, Duane Cooper, Adam Snodgrass, and Amy Cowin.

Bonanno broke down his group’s unorthodox methods of activism for the assembled YELLers. Humor and the unexpected, he explained, travel faster and have greater impact than communications meant to inspire anger or outrage. At the OR YELL conference, attendees brainstormed up our own dream headlines. Bonnano workshopped the concepts we’d chosen, addressing the strength and clarity of our messaging. He also delved into the science of catching media attention. Use costuming, he advised; make sure you bring your own photographer to events; stage a memorable image that will seamlessly integrate into a news story.

Oregon YELL also held elections at the event, progressing through nominations and a Q+A session with the candidates before choosing Leah Okin as their new Chair and Cynthia Andrade as their new Financial Secretary. Okin succeeds Nick Gaitaud, who was the group’s chairperson for its first three years.

The symposium was followed with a social hour at Holocene, allowing time for those useful after-hours conversations to foster mutual learning and strategy. Oregon YELL’s conference wound down into an amusing evening with Bonnano, with community members joining YELLers to hear more about his adventures in avant-garde moving and shaking.

The down-to-earth conference exemplified the realistic and informal tone of many young worker gatherings, where union and community activists connect in original ways to problem-solve together. The internal divisions in the labor movement undermine strength, and it’s refreshing to see young workers bridge some of these gaps in new and courageous ways to achieve even greater solidarity.

Read about Oregon YELL here.

Learn more about the Yes Men here.

Justine Winnie of OPEIU Local 8 is the Recording Secretary for Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders (WA YELL). For more information about WA YELL, visit their Facebook page.

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